Bringing the past to life

 

Not a big deal, but something I liked.

Here is another example of reddit, as a community, taking an idea and adding value. Like the Ukraine unrest, which I talked about in my last post, this is also about violence, but this time from 1945.

Whereas much of this could have been done without a web community to organise it I very much doubt it would have happened, and more pertinently (for me at least) I am sure it would not have come to my attention.

Aside from the actions of the reddit historyporn sub which made these edits (impressive), which I think really elevates the way this story is presented, these photos are also simply a reminder of war and its mundane brutality. The transformation from 1945 to 2013 is chilling.

Oberdorla, Germany, 1945: American soldiers come under sniper fire having lost one soldier.

US troops 1945 oberdorla

The original photo

Edit 1 - colorised

Edit 1 – colorised

Edit 2 - Oberdorla as it is today

Edit 2 – Oberdorla as it is today

Edit 3 - overlay onto 2013 Oberdorla

Edit 3 – overlay onto 2013 Oberdorla

The image of Oberdorla today was provided by the reddit user u/Mugros who as a result of seeing the original photo being posted went there and took a bunch of photos which were then hosted on imgur and also posted in the reddit thread.

Those photos can be found here.

u/siliconbunny adds a lot more detail and related links here.

Finally Google maps 360 panorama from the same spot.

 


The revolution will not be televised. It will be streamed live

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This morning, as usual, I opened up reddit and quickly scanned the front page. It might be tempting to think that I was simply looking for a diversion, avoiding my daily obligations or just wasting time like a feckless teenager, but my daily morning surf is actually a much more disciplined activity than it might seem at first sight. In short I was looking to see what had become ‘news’ on the overnight American reddit cycle.

I have been doing this for some time as reddit is quite good at uncovering the trending tech news, although it’s worth noting it is not a primary source, more a navigation aid. Before I open reddit I will have looked through both the BBC news site and the Guardian, so it is rare that a non-tech, or mainstream news story is surfaced on reddit that I haven’t already picked up from traditional news sources.

Today’s front page looked like this. The story about the unrest in Ukraine sitting at the top, immediately caught my eye.

front page of reddit

I quickly had 2 thoughts. Firstly wow, something big must have happened in Kiev to have claimed the top spot on the front page, and secondly, why didn’t I see this story on the BBC and the Guardian already? I had, as is my custom already been to both those news sites.

They looked like this.

BBC news 1

BBC News 2

Guardian 1

Guardian 2

Meanwhile I had clicked on the reddit link, to a live stream, which revealed a somewhat arresting scene. Not massively dramatic, there was no pitched battle being played out, although the images, the live moving images accompanied by live audio, clearly showed what looked like the aftermath of a pitched battle.

This was what that looked like.

Ukraine live stream

I immediately re-opened my trusted news sites to find out what had happened. Even though it was reddit that had succeeded in bringing this news item to my attention my long learnt news gathering habits sent me scrambling back to the old school sites.

Neither site, the BBC or the Guardian, had linked to this story above the fold. On the BBC it was the fifth story and on the Guardian the third, counterpointed by the Anelka / quenelle story. The BBC prioritising a footballers crass behaviour ahead of massive political unrest, the guardian just about letting the unrest pip the crass footballer.

I read both sites’ stories, and was surprised to read bland reports of overnight unrest and the ensuing political posturing of the Ukrainian and Russian politicians. Neither report seemed to comfortably reflect the scenes, the live scenes, I was able to watch unfold in the live stream. It wasn’t that they had failed to capture the drama they simply hadn’t tried to.

So I went back to reddit and opened up the comments.

Information overload.

There were links to maybe 10/15 other video sources showing various events from the night’s demonstrations.

There were links to the local Ukrainian news sources where there was actual live reporting, updating events in real time.

There were links to Google maps showing the exact location within the city.

There were requests for the community to help with various translation challenges, which I found fascinating. The audio on the live stream could pick up what was being broadcast to the protesters, by the police. But not speaking Russian it was a joy to get the translation, although the content was grim and scary.

In short it was lively, dynamic and fascinating, but it was neither authoritative nor unbiased.

Here’s the thing though.

The internet, as a simple result of being what it is, gives me ample resource to establish the authority of reported facts and many tools to establish to my own satisfaction how far a clear bias should jeopardise the veracity of the information being transmitted.

I spent the next 30 minutes of my morning following links, reading Wikipedia articles and other bland information repositories to verify certain parts of the reddit sourced information, even some of the translations. I started to ask myself why there was so little reporting of the Ukrainian unrest. It seemed to be a major story to me, so I was curious what reason had led to its relegation from the top of the news cycle.

However, I was more intrigued as to why the news media had declined to deliver what had been a highly stimulating news experience. What I couldn’t understand was why they had decided to miss out on the opportunity to be the owner of that stimulating news experience.

I’m asking why, when from this industry (the news industry), we continually hear of the impending destruction of quality journalism, how the internet, or Google specifically if you are in France, is responsible for revenue destruction, and how the old business models are no longer fit for purpose. When we have what essentially boils down to a dead product, then why then aren’t they covering the genuine news items that offer the opportunity to use the best of internet functionality to deliver authoritative and unbiased news reporting to the masses? In real time. With real live imagery and audio and all the rest of the bangs and whistles.

It’s a bigger question that it seems at first sight.

One facet that needs exploration is the value of being an authoritative source. It is somewhat inextricably built in to the concept of bias. A source can be considered authoritative, by its audience, because, amongst other things, it is either reputed to deliver the facts alone, a sincere lack of bias, or it can be trusted to deliver a consistent bias that matches an inherent bias in the audience. The give em what they want argument. We might believe that our news choices deliver the first type of authority, but really they all deliver the second

I don’t think that it’s tin foil hat territory to suggest that pretty much all authoritative news sources have some form of inherent bias. Indeed you can see bias just in the difference of reporting priorities between the BBC and the Guardian. Which means that a true sincere lack of a bias is not a valid criteria for success. No-one, it seems can make it stick.

But then, that also means that authority is derived from the audience and its happiness with what it receives from the broadcaster.

What today’s reporting of the unrest in Ukraine shows us is the creative disruption of the news, delivered in a visceral and gripping fashion.

One of the extremely important parts of Clayton Christensen’s disruption theory is that the new innovative disruptive technologies are, initially at least, highly inferior to the incumbent. So the transistors that eventually displaced valve technology got their start as small portable radios that were so weak that they needed to be tightly aligned to the broadcast source to even receive a signal. They were loved because they enabled teenagers to listen to rock n roll without their parents knowing. Prior to transistor radios there was a family radio, a big old thing in the living room. The new radios were deeply technically inferior but cheap and just about good enough.

There are a lot more dynamics at play than just creative destruction here but nonetheless Christensen’s theories are instructive.

Using reddit as a news source for this kind of news is inferior to traditional outlets in many ways. For a start I had to do a lot more of the work myself. There was no aesthetic one stop shop for all the various links I needed, no single authority I could comfortably defer to. Instead I had to push through the thread, read the comments, follow links good and bad, check facts, and establish where bias needed to be accounted for. I can’t come back tomorrow and expect a follow up, there will be no editorial opinion from the world’s leading talking heads.

But, there was little alternative. The mainstream press wasn’t in the game.

The other device that helped establish transistors was the hearing aid. As a technology valves simply couldn’t be accommodated within human ears, they were too big. Those first hearing aids were according to Christensen competing against non-consumption. They didn’t have to be great, no-one else was in the market.

This morning with regards to getting a full and informative news update regarding the civil unrest in the Ukraine there was only one place to go, the open web. The door was reddit but the value was to be found on the web in a lot of different locations. Essentially the open web was competing against non-consumption, there was nowhere else to get a comparative experience. Or, actually to even find out what was going on.

News organisations are aware of all this of course, as all disrupted industries are, but they still do nothing about it. Part of the difficulty is the need to pander to the required bias of audiences and stakeholders but the more difficult problem is the one at the heart of the creative disruption conundrum. The new market is built around the new providers, and eventually they suck the old market in to the new technology, it is rare that the old players catch up. If modern news organisations embrace the variability and the volatility of the open web then what is their role? It can be neither gatekeeper nor authority, as they are today. That’s a problem that hasn’t been solved yet.

A lot of the thinking about the role of the internet in times of civil unrest, revolution and war centers on the ability to get news out that otherwise would be held back by the established sources. This is true enough, and certainly twitter and other democratic platforms do rebalance certain elements of the propaganda battles. However, what is good for the goose is good for the gander. Traditional news has wholeheartedly embraced twitter, there can barely be a journalist worth their salt without a twitter feed and similarly there can be no newsroom that doesn’t understand the immediacy of these tools.

Yet still we hear that modern journalism is under serious threat. And I think that that is true, for the reasons I’ve started to explore here. My parent’s generation, and much of my generation, are always going to defer to the old news sources, even while they now read the headlines on their ipads before breakfast.

The millenials? Not so much. They live in the stream, consume TV (if at all) in a completely different way and pretty much don’t read newspapers. What happened on reddit this morning is an extremely scruffy precursor to what news reporting might become, and it is this generation that will learn to improve that experience. The exact details are yet to be derived, the issue of authority in a world of accessible primary sources being a prime unexplored vector, but it will come.

The revolution will not be televised. It will be a live stream. u/time_mashine got that right.


Awesome videos from Vimeo

This is one of the most captivating films I’ve watched in a while. There are no special effects here, or more accurately, what you are seeing was captured ‘live’ by the cameras not added in afterwards in the editing suite. The effects are created by projection onto the moving boards. Just brilliant.

 

Then we have this, computers watching movies. This film is a representation of how a computer visually digests the “carrier bag in the wind” scene from American Beauty. The audio from the movie is over-layed allowing you to consider the difference between your perceptions and the computers. Oddly engaging. This is from a series of 6 movie scenes. This was the one I thought was most able to instigate feelings of a cognitive presence although the others are also worth a look.

 

Finally this wonderful film used over 2000 PVC cutouts and reminds me of Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians.


Strategy with Stratfor

Stratfor is the global intelligence consultancy that came to public prominence in 2011 when they were hacked by anonymous.

I didn’t pay them much mind beyond those news reports until recently, when I stumbled across a video called “The United Kingdom’s Geographic Challenge” via r/GeoPolitics on reddit. It’s only 2 minutes long and after watching it I was strikingly unimpressed, largely because it was made by Stratfor, and I therefore expected something pretty big in terms of insight, and which I felt was lacking. I scanned the reddit thread and found folks similarly unimpressed. I then read the Youtube comments, which I don’t often do. There was only one substantial exchange, between someone called Random Videos (RV) and someone called Zarrov. RV was unimpressed, Zarrov somewhat bluntly explained that RV was missing the context…

Thats why I said that I dismissed your comment. It would take too much time to explain basics. You just don’t understand strategy. You think in superficial, layman terms, thats “ability to amass invasion” means “omg, agression, they WANT to attack us”. Not so. The very existence of power warps relations with others. The most obvious mistake you make is to assume that history happens because of random events, and that it does not repeat itself. You do not ask yourself question why all states, despite changing times, regimes, technology, societies and leaders behaved in patterns. To think, that “well, today we are safe” and proejct (sic) that into the future is very basic mistake. — Zarrov
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So I went back and watched it again. And then watched another 6 or 7 of them, for a range of different countries. And I found my opinion transformed, and not just in a subtle fashion. I found myself extremely impressed, and in receipt of the insight I had originally expected. Awesome.
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The videos most certainly are about strategy, grand strategy. The strategy that is informed by that most immovable of fundamental factors, the geography of a nation. The videos are a mixture of the implications of various geographic realities, the relations they hold with the seat of power in a nation and a little of the history each nation has experienced.
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I had originally dismissed the first one I watched, because it seemed to be a very basic history lesson. The 180 degree flip came from realising that the geographic factors that informed the UK’s strategy in times of empire, are still informing its strategy in today’s time of economic European union. The other videos are similarly impressive. Below I have posted the videos for the UK, France and Egypt as well as one explaining the importance of the Yangtze river in China. If like me you enjoy these you should also spend a happy hour or so scanning through their Youtube channel looking for others in the series.


Internet fame, Alan Moore and the Sea

…Social networks reward us every time we publicise our lives, and we eat it up. This is most startlingly apparent amongst Generation Y, for whom sharing their lives with the world is so natural and ingrained, they almost see it as a basic human right. They consider privacy as something archaic and quaint, no longer relevant to the world we live in. They like it when they Google their own name and see images of themselves on the front page. They compete to gain followers on Tumblr, friends on Facebook and mentions on Twitter.

– Mark Scott, coding2learn

 

In the 20th century however, with these massive surges in communication, suddenly a different sort of fame was possible. And I tend to think that what fame has done, it has replaced the sea as the element of choice of adventure for young people. If you were a dashing young man in the 19th century, you would probably want to run away to sea. Just as in the 20th century you might decide that you want to run away and form a pop band.

– Alan Moore

I am 40 odd years old and I don’t have a Facebook account. I did, but then I killed it. That choice was informed by a partial mixture of just not liking it very much, and being somewhat put off by Zuckerberg’s crass and relentless exploitation of the data he was gathering. I don’t think he needed to come across as a hustler, but alas for me, that’s what happened.

To be fair it was always clear what was going on, he didn’t lie to anyone. He might have been somewhat morally ambiguous, but that was hardly hidden to anyone who made more than a cursory investigation. So caveat emptor, we sow what we reap and we are fools to blame Zuckerberg if we don’t like what comes to pass. When the blame is being handed out we will have only ourselves to turn to.

That’s if blame is the right context, of course. It might come to pass that the loss of privacy becomes a good thing. I don’t think that it is likely to be a good thing, at all, as it goes, but I am willing to cede the possibility as I suspect that the endlessly flexible human animal may well adapt and create a new societal paradigm that works. And even though I might forever feel uncomfortable in that society, the natives, well they won’t give a damn. On top of that for all the negative externalities that I see there will probably be many positive changes that I do not. Human social and technologic evolution has been like this since…whenever. Plus ca change.

Nonetheless  I often find  myself scratching my head. Not just because young people are signing away their privacy, but also because of the huge swathes of my generation and the generations that came before mine, doing the same. I’m genuinely curious as to why people are so easily seduced into revealing their intimate life details (both mundane and explosive) to unseen digital platforms and uncontrolled (as in you can never guess if it’s your turn to go viral) digital audiences. I just don’t buy the argument that ignorance of the potential consequences, or a disagreement as to the potential consequences, explain the mass adoptions of these behaviours, there has to be something else at play.

I think the seduction of fame might be something to do with it. Fame after all is somewhat antithetical to privacy.

The quote from Alan Moore, at the top of this post, comes from this short Youtube interview excerpt whereby he explains his thoughts on the nature of modern fame and celebrity. But to be clear, he is not talking about fame and celebrity in the internet age. His observations relate to the fame that he experienced as a cartoonist in the 80’s and 90’s and noughties. I think his opinions are illuminating, particularly the specific idea I’ve highlighted. I think there is some valuable mileage in his comparison of fame with the youthful concept of ‘going to sea’.

I’m old enough to recall that ‘going to sea’ was a real option, indeed a part of the cultural smorgasbord, when I was young. Even though it is still a real option for today’s youth it is, however, somewhat absent of the romantic, and romantically dangerous, appeal that it held in my formative years.

Likewise fame is most certainly something that has a romantic appeal, often in the absence of practical comfort, and is also dangerous. We do, after all, as a society, worship those that die young from drugs and excess, but only if they were famous first.

Internet fame, though, has modified the situation becasue internet fame is more accessible and more scalable.

It’s more accessible because technology has democratised the means of production and distribution so that it is now fundamentally easier to write, compose and create with the aid of technology, and even easier still to offer such acts of creativity to the masses, through platforms such as Facebook as well as the rest of the modern social playbook.

Moreover because of the absence of gatekeepers at the point of publication we can more easily envisage joining in. We no longer have to convince someone that our work is good enough for publication, we just have to press the send button. This engenders a lower level of quality control, of course, but that is also part of the phenomena, driving a lowering in expectation which in turn enables satisfaction for a lower scale fame.

Internet fame can be fleeting, derived from just one small piece of creativity, one wisecrack, one blog post, one video, one song, one facebook comment, one well drawn picture that goes viral on reddit or one pithy opinion stated with alacrity and venom on the Guardian comment is free pages.

And internet fame can also be derived unintentionally from one offensive tweet, one cruel schoolmate highlighting a youthful mistake, one drunken photograph, one sad moment of exploitation revealed to the world and exposed to the voracious appetite of potential viral distribution.

This is what I mean when I describe internet fame as scalable. Internet fame encompasses writers, artist and musicians of a wide range of skill as well as local fame such as within a forum, for example, and fame derived purely from curation.

Going to sea, on the other hand, pretty much occurred on only 1 level. Maybe you were signed up with a ships company that worked the North Sea, or maybe you traversed the globe but in either situation you were pretty much a sailor, and a sailor alone.

Moore’s era fame was also limited in its scale, although in a slightly different manner. To achieve fame in a world where access to distribution was scarce and therefore rationed required a skill level that came with quite a high ceiling, talent needed to be somewhat substantial.

There was no mechanic that could make you famous for 10 days simply because of what you said on the playground, or in the office.

Social media changed that. Now what you say on the playground might earn you an audience from the other side of the world. When I grew up it couldn’t even leak as far as the next school.

That is an entirely different type of fame, serviced by a democratised distribution platform and made tangible through real time feedback loops. What once was fleeting is now preserved and validated through gamification tools (‘valueless’ internet points).

We can easily understand how this operates in seducing young people to seek notoriety, at the same time as it encourages the less talented to seek fame for their unworthy talents and at the same time as it massively enables the genuinely talented to proceed without the friction of gatekeepers.  The smooth processing of sublime creative genius of course, being the promise that helps drive the whole process…  ”that could be me”.

So, where do adults fit in? Why are they behaving like teenagers? After all if you examine the ‘going to sea’ metaphor it is clear that that was almost entirely a metaphor of youth. Of course there was the odd criminal that needed to disappear, regardless of age, but by and large the romance of the option was for young men. It was a hardy life of cold brutality and adventure. Not for women (opinion of the times) and not for middle aged couch potatoes either.

I think the scalability of internet fame might explain why adults are mimicking teenagers.

I check my blog stats and my Quora stats. I like it when my forum posts generate replies. I don’t post to Facebook but I imagine the effect is similar. I have often watched my adult friends get excited when an, often trivial (‘I did this yesterday’ type thing) facebook post causes a buzz.

All of these things are low level fame, brought to life by the artificial yet frustratingly real implication of ‘internet points’, but seemingly and soothingly bereft of any real risk of significant exposure. A small buzz, not an internet shitstorm. How middle aged is that.

The internet provides scalable low impact, local fame that doesn’t need to deliver career level celebrity to still be inherently satisfying. And we have all been seduced.

Social fame, the kind we all can experience (100 likes in a day, wooo) is slightly different from Moore’s romantic journey to sea. Fundamentally it is a weaker experience, in both commitment and impact. Nonetheless the dynamic of the attraction shares roots with those youthful nautical adventurers and also with the more recent and substantial dream of global fame.

Maybe I’m just dressing up a simple observation. Internet = fame, even the kind of low impact local fame that only 10 years ago wouldn’t have qualified for the sobriquet.


A mixed bag of links

 

It takes something for an article about HR policies to be interesting, but that’s what this article about Netflix’s HR policy is. Very interesting. Over the years I’ve heard pretty much all the cliches that are generally foisted onto employees by management teams. The one that has always provoked mirth, occasionally despair, across the workforce is the one that claims to pay market rate, “we want the best people, so we pay the best wages”. I’ve worked for market leading companies, and companies circling the drain. In both types of company we knew that some people were paid market rate, and we knew that some people weren’t. I even know that one colleague of mine, when presenting the new job offer he had received, which was about 30-40% larger than his current salary, to his employer, was told that they didn’t believe that his new salary offer was an accurate representation of his market rate! No word of a lie. Anyway. Netflix. There is much in here that is innovative and brave, and logical, although in some respects it could be seen as slightly brutal also, but only slightly. There is a lot of detail and substantiation that is worth reading but there are highlights. First the observation that the best thing you can do to keep employees happy is to only hire the best co-workers, which necessitates what can often be a fairly emotionless approach to letting people go. And secondly, that when you do let people go, they get a generous severance package. Quite brilliant really although clearly not for everyone.

http://hbr.org/2014/01/how-netflix-reinvented-hr/ar/1

 

This link is another example of an exceptional use of digital media by a modern news organisation. There aren’t that many of these things around and I try to highlight them when I find them. By and large this kind of approach, it’s more investigative journalism than ‘news at 9’ , isn’t that commonplace. I suspect that the economics are somewhat challenging but hope that we are starting to see these new approaches getting some grip. Regardless this is a really good deep dive into the phenomena of mass killings in America since 2006.  Its not a wall of text, but instead a mixture of data, story telling, graphics and intuitive use of browser mechanics. The topic at hand is grim, but the journalism impressive.

http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/mass-killings/index.html#title

 

I wrote a short post about a week ago, which at its heart claimed that in general, business did not use the internet to see what real people were doing, and what real people wanted, as expressed by those people in natural and non prompted environments. I was mostly writing from the angle of the communications and marketing industry (I have always hated focus groups even though they do have their uses) but was aware that it applied to different business spheres also. This article is about the Amazon whisperers, a New Jersey company that scours Amazon reviews, and other web locations, to find products that are missing certain features. They know they are missing those features because the reviews say so. The next step is to commission a company, often in China, to make the product, but fully replete with the features that are wanted. Obvious, yes once you hear about it, clever, yes for sure, but commonplace, no.

http://www.fastcompany.com/3021229/chaim-pikarski-the-amazon-whisperer

 

Something that has been missing from the regular coverage of the agreement between America and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program and the US sanctions is the wider effect this deal has had on other regional players. It is widely reported, of course, that Israel is very unhappy as their position on Iran and nuclear proliferation has been a driving force behind much of American policy in the region for many years now. Just as formative, but much less reported is the role played by Saudi Arabia, both in terms of their relationship to America, and also their fear of Iran’s nuclear program. This article explores those issues, starting with the somewhat bleak assertion that the US/Iran deal may lead to the nuclearisation of the Saudis. I don’t buy that as an inevitable conclusion but its a good place to start.

http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/11/29/iran_saudi_arabia_nuclear_war_obama

 

This next piece is quite long, but again worth a read. it’s yet another take on privacy and the NSA, this time from the hacker/maker community. It’s a good examination, whether you are in agreement or not. I particularly like the observations about misrepresentation as a path to privacy. Its a job that requires some technical sophistication and dedication so I can’t see it being a widespread approach, but interesting nonetheless. This passage in particular stood out for me.

If data kills both privacy as impossible-to-observe and privacy as
impossible-to-identify, then what might be an alternative?  If you
are an optimist or an apparatchik, then your answer will tend toward
rules of procedure administered by a government you trust or control.
If you are a pessimist or a hacker/maker, then your answer will
tend towards the operational, and your definition of a state of
privacy will be mine: the effective capacity to misrepresent yourself.

http://geer.tinho.net/geer.uncc.9×13.txt

 

 


r/pics January 2014